A Real Spectre III: Find the Truth or Tear It Down, Composing, 10/09/2015

Continued from last post . . . Well, I say Jacques Derrida was a major developer of the technique of meditative writing. But the one who really gave birth to the style was his philosophical forefather, Martin Heidegger. But they used the same technique for two very different purposes, so ended up creating very different works.

Heidegger was probably the most profoundly conservative thinker in the West's entire philosophical tradition. Three different points, summarizing very simply a lot of his very complex ideas, will let me use this label.

1) In the sense of his politics, Heidegger was a cultural conservative and anti-development. He was a well-to-do man who grew up in a small, socially insular, very traditional Catholic town in Germany, Messkirch in southern Bavaria, very close to the Swiss border. He considered this rural religious lifestyle the best for German people.

When I really want to make fun of Heidegger's vision of
true philosophy being mystic prophesy of being, I think
of Terry Jones' character Simon the Holy Man. Really,
the concept is much more disturbing, as Heidegger's
Black Notebooks show: he conceived of philosophy as
an authoritarian practice.
He was, correspondingly, very opposed to technological development and urbanization. These views have been picked up superficially to inspire the environmentalist movement, a terrible philosophical mistake precisely because nothing in Heidegger's thinking is superficial. He simply thought too hard for that.

2) He also thought that the philosophical tradition had been chasing the wrong goal when it started to pursue rationality and argumentation itself for a method. So with Plato, basically. This is another way Heidegger was taken up in environmentalist thinking, which rightly understands the messy, chaotic patterns of spontaneous natural development as a superior path for life than the clean, simple rationality of human grids.

Heidegger pursued this largely in philosophy, which meant that he wanted to return the tradition to its prophetic character. Philosophy, Heidegger says, should be the revelations of a prophet (like Anaximander, Parmenides, or Heraclitus) about the eternal nature of existence itself.

3) Heidegger saw himself as such an existential prophet, revealing these truths for the masses to accept. His meditative style of writing was meant to be a philosophical poetry for the 20th century and beyond, picking up the prophetic character of the pre-Socratics again.

This mission for philosophy was a dead end after Heidegger. I think he would have wanted it this way, as he often meditated on the end of philosophy. But the meditative style of writing could be much more than this dusty authoritarianism.

That's where Derrida was a departure. He picked up the same method of meditative writing, but applied it to progressive thinking. Derrida had a fundamentally different personal character than Heidegger, and that pushed his own writing in different directions.

Contrast their biographies alone. Derrida was a dark-skinned French-Algerian Jew, a minority many times over. Society stably conforming to centuries-old patterns makes someone like him homeless, an outcast, or worse.

Derrida's a tough writer who dealt with many different
problems in his books throughout his career. And I
think a good way to approach his work is to understand
his lifelong position as a person. Even though we're
often introduced to Derrida's writings in university
classes as if he were an authority, throughout his life,
he was a minority, a member of different groups, all
of which faced oppression.
Derrida was a Jew born in 1930, though his wartime home in Vichy-controlled Algeria meant only that he was expelled from the state-run school system. Being in Algeria, Derrida and his family were never targeted by the Holocaust's trains, but he watched the horror from the southern coast.

He was never all that concerned with finding stability, truth, or any kind of eternal ground. So while Heidegger influenced Derrida in his meditative writing style, the younger man had his own priorities. Deconstruction has plenty of problems, but it's an excellent philosophical nuclear bomb, Agent Orange, Death Star. And it's target is always authority, the established consensus, conformity to what's acceptable.

It's a way of interpreting a text that makes internal contradictions bubble up from whatever you apply it to. All of Derrida's most famous works in the late 1960s and early 1970s applied this technique to destabilize a lot of presumptions about the possibility of meaning and the powers of language. But when you blow everything up, you find yourself stuck with a lot of rubble.

So Derrida spent the later decades of his career, from about the 1980s onward, figuring out how to salvage something from the rubble. Ethics in particular. Spectres of Marx is one of these conceptual salvage operations, trying to find a politics of justice. Yet it accepts as a premise that genuine justice is impossible to achieve in the world.

How in hell does that work? To be continued . . . 


  1. Didn't expect those two based on the tweet (most conservative writer of the 20th century etc).

    1. I disguise my promotion a little bit to attract different kinds of folks to the blog than just people who've come from the academic world.

      Also, I really do consider Heidegger to be the most conservative writer of the last century. I consider him that because his conservatism is rooted in so many different aspects of the human experience. He makes for a fascinating story, and it'll probably be a central interregnum in the Utopias manuscript.

  2. It's a good trick! I guess I just saw conservative and thought "Michael Oakshott" because of conventional association. But I agree with what you say about Heidegger.